Annette Bening could hardly look any cooler if we were meeting within the cover of a Blue Note jazz LP. She is wearing a black polo neck. Her hair is short and peppery. Blue eyes gaze through round, transparent spectacle frames. Everything about her seems sharp and tuned-in.
The real Bening contrasts interestingly with the strong, caring, but slightly baffled woman she plays in Mike Mills's likeable 20th Century Women. The film is set in 1979. Bening plays the mother of a teenage boy suffering all the era's signature traumas. Set in Santa Barbara, 20th Century Women has a poignancy for people of, ahem, our generation. I'm about the age of the boy. I would guess Bening is about the age of the character played by Elle Fanning.
“I’m 58. So in 1979, I was 21,” she says. “I do recognise it. I grew up in California. So I recognised that. I could smell the beach. I could sense the sand. I knew the people. I knew the music. I had so many associations in a way I have never had when I’ve read a screenplay.”
Bening was raised in California, but she is of Midwestern stock. Right?
“I was born in Kansas and we moved to San Diego when I was seven,” she says. “Then I went to San Francisco for college and ended up in LA because of my husband and movies.”
"My husband" is, of course, Warren Beatty. By 1991, when the couple met on the set of Bugsy, she had established herself as one of Hollywood's most intelligent actors. Strong roles in Valmont and Postcards from the Edge had led onto an Oscar-nominated breakthrough – tough, sly, nuanced – in Stephen Frears's The Grifters. Beatty was famous for being Beatty and for refusing to settle down. They married, stayed together and raised four children.
Mills’s film reminds us how much has changed. All children feel that a cultural gulf separates them from their parents, but that gap was particularly vast in the 1960s and 1970s. Does she feel that distinction?
The rules for politics and sex were made clear, but they were never discussed. Ha ha!
“I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I think you might be right,” she says. “All the more so because my parents were from the Midwest and they were conservative Republicans. They were very warm, loving people. I adore them. But they were raised in a more sheltered environment. The rules for politics and sex were made clear, but they were never discussed. Ha ha!”
I doubt that a similar tension characterised relations with her own children.
“You are making a very good point,” she says. “That gap just isn’t as great between us and our children. I have been able to have a different conversation about sex with my children. But that’s okay. My parents were of their time and I won’t hear a word against them.”
She remembers being taken to the theatre by a kindly English teacher when she was at high school. Years later, Bening was able to “give her a hug” when she returned to San Diego. She worked her way through community college and then onwards to drama college in San Francisco.
“I was lucky in that all I wanted to do was do plays,” she remembers. “So getting my equity card was really important. I could then say ‘I am can actor’ and I could say it without blushing. I loved that.”
You try and react always to what the other actors are doing right now. You can do that on film
Bening spent most of the 1980s working on stage plays. She was married to Steven White, a choreographer, from 1984 until 1991. Then, in a few short years, she became an established movie star. I get little sense that she struggled to cope.
“The camera is a great luxury. I love it. If you’re trying to tell a story it really helps,” she says. “I like to be open to the moment. And there is something in the intellect that shuts you off from knowing what the moment is. You try and react always to what the other actors are doing right now. You can do that on film.”
The action in 20th Century Women also reminds us how much less wired into the information stream we were in the olden times. Yet in that era – as Carter stumbled and Reagan loomed – Americans felt that the world was moving as fast as it ever had.
"Yes, there was that book Future Shock [by Alvin Toffler]," she remembers. "That talked about an anxiety about change. Now that change is exponential. The amount of information is staggering. But that's easier for kids. That's the map of the world they were handed."
What Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes was great.
Bening goes on to admit that she is a total “news junkie”. She recently dropped her phone in the bath and, though it was blissful to be without it for a while, desperation soon set in.
You will know where this conversation is going. What a time to be a news junkie.
“Oh my God! Don’t even . . .” she gasps. “Just now I was reading another story about what’s happening in America. Phew!”
Beatty has always been a political person. He was a key organiser for Democratic candidate George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. Are they going to be speaking out against the Orange threat?
“Well, I don’t want to speak for my husband,” she says. “But what’s going on is so depressing. I have been somewhat circumspect about how much I talk about politics. I have tried to use my position responsibly. But being a public person doesn’t take away your right to speak out. We have to have dignity and class. Even if some of our leaders don’t. I thought that what Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes was great. I suspect there will be more at the Oscars.”
She is reminded of attacks being made on a vital source of advice on reproductive health. In 20th Century Women, one of the characters needs a pregnancy test and attends a Planned Parenthood clinic.
“The film brought that back,” she says. “I have such memories of going to Planned Parenthood as a teenage girl. There were so many seminal moments involving my friends. That was so important. To watch that under fire is particularly painful – for men and women.”
As a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Bening is unable to reveal any inner discussion about how protests may affect this year’s Oscars, but she seems relaxed about winners expressing their views.
Sadly, she will not be among their number this year. Bening just failed to scrape into the final five for best actress. She has been unsuccessfully nominated on four previous occasions and, I imagine, must be tired of pulling on the "good loser" face. Everyone thought she was going to win for American Beauty. She lost to Hilary Swank. She lost to Swank again for Being Julia.
“I remember the last time,” she laughs. “Look, you’re a human being and there’s a camera on your face. You can’t help but have a human response to the awkwardness of the situation. Last time, I thought: ‘I am not going to win. It’s not my time.’ So when it wasn’t – and I was right – my adrenaline didn’t even fire. There was no physical sensation of anticipation. I didn’t even have that. So it was a bit easier to say, ‘ah well, there you go.’”
She cackles enthusiastically.
“Ah, what can you do? It’s pretty good to get this far.”
- 20th Century Women is out now